Ah, Labor Day weekend. The last blast of summer begs for one last trip to the mountains or coast, one last campout before school schedules take priority, one last leisurely barbecue before autumn truncates the long evenings. Lots of people have holiday traditions as unbreakable as stone. Mine is to stay home, avoiding the traffic and the crowds, knowing that I’ll be outdoors all fall and winter. This year felt different, though.
Like the rest of the country, the Pacific Northwest experienced weeks of end-times weather. We don’t get hurricanes and we haven’t had a big earthquake in a while (knock wood), but we have had one hot, dry summer. Since late July, temperatures have hovered above 90 degrees most days. Since mid-August, smoke from increasingly severe forest fires has hazed the hot air. “Oppressive” is the adjective I’ve heard most often, and that is atypical for this region.
So when Labor Day rolled around and the sky was ash-white, Mr. Adventure and I wanted to leave the smoke and heat behind for a day. Much of the Cascades were burning — fire danger had closed the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier, where we had backpacked less than two weeks earlier — so we looked at our Olympics map, leafed through Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Olympic Peninsula, and consulted the Washington Trails Association website. Eventually we settled on a loop that took us down Badger Valley and up Grand Valley, past alpine lakes and through mountain realms we’d never explored.
A faraway trailhead
There’s a good reason for that: the trailhead is more than three hours from our house. We live an hour from Olympic National Park’s southeast entrance at Staircase. That’s where we usually go. It’s deep, dripping forest that shapes the mental image I have of the Olympic Peninsula. This alpine hike, though, started at Obstruction Point, at the end of a narrow, twisty, dusty gravel road eight miles from Hurricane Ridge, the park’s most accessible area for visitors who want to see mountains. It’s a long way away, so we left at 6am.
Despite our early start, we didn’t get to the trailhead until nearly 10am. The drive took longer than we thought. Trailhead parking was full, so we followed others’ lead and parked along the roadside. Looking around, this already felt different from anything I’d experienced in the Olympics. We were in the transition between subalpine and alpine zones, with few trees and a lot of talus slopes. And unlike the evergreen forests of the lowland river valleys, this area was totally exposed to an already-hot sun.
Down, down, down
In contrast to most trails I’ve hiked in the Pacific Northwest, this one started by going downhill. Steeply, sharply, switchbackingly downhill, from the head of Badger Valley for almost a mile.
At last, the trail eased to a gentler grade, and Badger Valley widened into late summer-scorched meadows dotted with subalpine fir stands. As we continued down the valley, the silence and stillness prompted us to stop frequently and simply listen. A high-pressure system and the smoke from the Cascades forest fires combined to squelch any chance of a breeze. Even the sound of the stream draining the valley was muffled.
We could see where the valleys met, but before reaching the junction we entered a mixed-conifer forest with large cedars. This was more like the Olympics I’m used to.
Up, up, up
The trail took a noticeable turn out of Badger Valley and into Grand Valley, leveling out momentarily. But what goes down must come up, at least when hiking, and we started climbing at last. No messing around here. Following Grand Creek, we climbed 800 feet in about a mile, topping out at pretty Grand Lake. So this is where everybody was! We’d met only two people in four-plus miles, so obviously most hikers had descended via Grand Ridge, the way we would return. Perhaps a dozen hikers scattered around the lakeshore, dipping toes in the cool water.
Sitting on a small berm, we realized we really hadn’t drunk or eaten enough, and we were feeling the heat. So we forced down food, drank a lot of water, and refilled our bottles by filtering from the lake. Refreshed and revived, we headed to nearby Moose Lake, a half-mile side trip.
Moose Lake has a backcountry ranger station and several beautiful campsites. This would definitely be worth an overnight or two. From the lake, hikers can explore Grand Pass and beyond in stunning alpine country.
From Moose Lake, it’s all uphill
We refilled the water bottles one last time, then started up the switchbacks that would bring us back to the ridgeline and, eventually, our car. As we trudged uphill, Mr. Adventure and I reviewed our strategies for getting through hot, dry, steep, long hikes. He’s a fan of the rest step, where you pause after planting each foot, keeping your weight on the rear foot and giving yourself a short breather before moving forward. I lean toward the “at the end of this switchback I’m stopping to catch my breath for 30 seconds” strategy, which allows my heartbeat and breathing to slow a bit and has the advantage of breaking up the relentless uphill slog. I tried the rest step, too, to good effect. About 1600 feet and two miles later, we topped the ridge.
Lillian Ridge and Mount Olympus
Sure, I stopped often to catch my breath, but the views kept taking it away. To the north, Mount Baker floated on the horizon, bands of smoke wrapping its lower reaches. As we reached the top of the ridge, the Brothers appeared in the distance, a sheer wall of rock looming over the nearby slopes. And then, as we turned along Lillian Ridge toward the trailhead, Mount Olympus rose above forested valleys, glaciers softening its stolid shoulders. We had recovered from the breath-robbing ascent, but now we just stopped to stare. The geology of the Olympic Mountains is topsy-turvy. What looks from Seattle and Olympia like a solid alpine wall is actually a scattering of peaks, tossed around the peninsula in no discernible pattern. Seeing Mount Olympus in front of me and the Brothers behind was slightly disorienting, but it gave me renewed appreciation for the national park and forest wildernesses that preserve a big chunk of this region.
By this point, it was nearing 4:00pm, the haze worsening and the heat unrelenting. But the rest of the hike was a walk in the park, along narrow Lillian Ridge with views into Badger Valley on one side and the Lillian River valley on the other. Turquoise tarns sparkled at the foot of the slopes below small snow fields. Along the trail, alpine heather, wind-blown grasses, and finely ground talus stone melded into a pastiche of brown and gold, with crimson huckleberry patches reaching downhill on the south-facing side.
Last stop: the Elwha
Although we were tired and knew the drive home would be long, Mr. Adventure had not seen the Elwha River valley since the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were removed between 2011 and 2014. It’s only about 10 miles further west on Highway 101 from Hurricane Ridge Road, so we headed that way. Others have written eloquently about the Elwha. I’ll just say that it is an extraordinary thing to see a river rewilded. The Park Service constructed viewing platforms on the Glines Canyon Dam’s former spillway. Look straight down into the sapphire river as it constricts between the canyon walls, then look southwest, into the braided waterway that weaves through the Elwha River valley. Signs of recovery are everywhere, from the trees and shrubs crowding into the river basin to the salmon returning to its waters. Mostly, though, I saw hope and optimism — that our well-meant but destructive changes need not be permanent, that the wild only waits for an opportunity to return. It was a good way to end the day.